Books, Music

The Irony of Portraying “Stillness” in Books (and Classical Music)

Monet Esquisse d'ensemble.jpg
“Woman with a Parasol” by Monet, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington

Portraying stillness or inactivity is a pretty bizarre paradox in books and music when you stop to think about it because the only way to show stillness is to have movement! After all, what options do authors have of showing that a character is still? They could say something like “then she sat down and stayed there for half an hour,” but if you’re like me you just keep plowing on to the very next sentence so that movement is never really stopped on the part of the reader.

Of course, authors (like Victor Hugo) can choose to force us to live in that stillness longer by writing expansive descriptions, maybe by detailing the character’s thoughts or by describing the scene in intricate detail, but in each of these two cases “movement” is still involved! If you’re following a character’s thoughts then while they may be physically still their mind is active and moving. And if you’re reading a long descriptive passage then in a way you are moving or at least your virtual gaze is, noticing first one thing and then the other.

A similar thing can happen in music (and especially instrumental music!) where maybe we perceive stillness from super long notes/slow-moving notes that imply slow or virtually no action. Maybe the music has fast notes which repeat over and over, giving a sense of immobility despite the fact that the notes themselves are moving fast. So is it even possible to portray stillness without also having movement??

As a side note, interestingly enough art seems to work in the opposite way. Nothing is physically moving because it’s a picture (obviously) but we still get a sense of movement, like in the painting featured at the top of this post. To me it feels like the painting is a snapshot of these people, as if the painter had called out their names while they were walking away up the hill, watching them turn around for just a moment before continuing to walk away.

But for books and music at least it seems like at the root of stillness there’s still motion by necessity, if and when authors decide to portray stillness at all.

Do you agree? How have the books and music you’ve read/listened to shown stillness, if at all? Let me know in the comments!

You might also like: Different Perspectives in Books…and Music! and Hyperbole in Literature…and Classical Music!

14 thoughts on “The Irony of Portraying “Stillness” in Books (and Classical Music)”

  1. While a literal stillness in music can never really be conveyed in music or books, I do believe there is a vaguely decent way to portray stillness. We also have to take into account whether or not what we perceive to be still is ourselves or our surroundings.

    Ambient and mystical songs like John Cage’s “4:33” and “In a Landscape” portray a certain stillness, one where the air and movements around you fall into a smooth sailing wave of motion while the sounds of the music swing you back and forth in an entranced daze.

    Or what about when we gravitate towards one part of a song or book and listen to or read it over and over again. I dunno…. I like this post, it’s hard to wrap my head around.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great point about Cage! 4:33 fascinates me in a lot of ways. I wasn’t familiar with “In a Landscape” but I’m listening to it now and love it! There’s something mystical and trance-like about it. I think that’s another way music can communicate stillness is by putting the listener in a sort of trance with lots of repetition, like Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. I also love your idea about the reader/listener creating their own stillness or even a static image on their own initiative by selective reading/listening…so cool!! Glad you liked the post and thanks for sharing your ideas; it’s hard for me to wrap my head around this stuff, too haha so it’s great hearing what other people think!


  2. Oh, and the soundtracks for Myst: Exile and maybe a couple from the Legend soundtrack…some stuff from Coil’s The Angelic Conversation? What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yeah, definitely!! These soundtracks are a really interesting example, too, because in games your character may or may not be moving at any given time, at least if it’s the kind of game where you have to wander around and find things. So I guess the soundtracks have to strike a balance between movement and stillness?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love stillness in an animated movie, like how Miyazaki will have gorgeous moments of a character laying in the grass, and knowing that it took hours and hours to animate. I guess the poem “Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Frost sticks out in my mind for literary stillness.

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  4. This is a very hard and interesting exercise. I guess one has to try and disentangle stillness objectively located in the music from types of stillness the music inspires in the listener. Do I think Satie’s Gymnopédie 1 is stillness, or does it inspire me to contemplate, and when I contemplate, do I generally not move? On the other hand, Shostakovich, 8th String Quartet–this is driven, anxiety induced composing, but I tend to imagine a kinetic brain in a frozen body; is it stillness? Hard. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love this distinction!! I’m now realizing that I tend to think of emotions and motion operating on the same general level, but you have a great point. When people get really angry, after all, they may actually be really still. Thanks so much for commenting and glad you enjoyed the post!

      Liked by 1 person

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